Interview with the president by Leonardo DiCaprio
Oval Office patio
March 31, 2000, 1:15 p.m.(EST)
DiCaprio: Mr. President, I want to thank you very much for your time.
And as you know, I'm neither a politician, nor a journalist, but being
given the opportunity to sit down with you here and talk about an issue
like global warming was an opportunity as a concerned citizen that I
couldn't pass up.
So my first question is, global warming is obviously a
controversial topic among scientists and politicians. What is your
understanding of what the effects of climate change will have on our future if preventative steps aren't taken immediately?
Clinton: Well, let me, first of all, thank you for your
interest in this because I think it's important that we get citizens more
involved in it; and secondly say, I don't think it's all that controversial
a topic among scientists. There are a few who say that it's not proven,
but we know that the hottest years in recorded history, and certainly in
the last 600 years, that nine of the hottest 11 years have occurred in
the last decade.
So the climate is changing and the globe is warming at an
unsustainable rate. And if it is not slowed and ultimately reversed, what
will happen is the polar ice caps will melt more rapidly; sea levels will
rise; you will have the danger of flooding in places like the precious
Florida Everglades, or the sugarcane fields of Louisiana; island nations
could literally be buried; the whole climate of the United States, for
example, could be changed where you would have more flooding, more heat waves, more storms, more extreme weather events generally. And then you'll have some public health consequences.
For example, we're already seeing in Africa, for example, malaria
being found at higher and higher altitudes where it used to be too cool for
the mosquitoes. So there will be a lot of very bad, more dramatic weather
events. There will be a shift in the patterns of agricultural production.
There will be flooding that will quite bad, and there will be more public
DiCaprio: While growing up, I always felt that environmental issues
were constantly overlooked, and I watched people band together for various
causes which seemed to come and go, and it was almost like they were going
in and out of style. So how do we take a misunderstood issue like climate
change and not only raise awareness, but make its prevention an ongoing
Clinton: Well, I think we have to make climate change a
local and a personal matter in the same way other successful environmental
issues are. You know, since I've been here, we've been able to strengthen
the quality of our air, strengthen the quality of our water. We've set
aside more land for protection and protected more forests than virtually any
administration in history, except those of the two Roosevelts, because they
were things people could understand and identify with, and they knew how to
advocate for, and they understood the benefits.
So I think we have to bring this down to practical applications
and convince people that they can do something about it, No. 1, and
No. 2, we have to talk about the first question you asked me -- what are
the consequences of not doing anything.
But there's so much we can do. We started a project here at the
White House called the Greening of the White House. Just by changing the
lighting in this whole building we lowered our electric bills by $100,000 a
year. Then we put in a different sort of roofing system which kept out
more heat and cold. Then we put in a more energy-efficient heating system
and water system. We brought more energy-efficient equipment -- copiers,
computers -- all with the Energy Star label, which is a totally voluntary
thing the Department of Energy provides.
Now, these are things that businesses all across America could be
doing. They're things that homes all across America could be doing. We've
worked with the home builders to help build lower-cost housing that will
cut energy use by 50 percent. There's one housing development built in the
Inland Empire out in Southern California, east of L.A., for lower-income
working people where the average utility bills are 65 percent lower than in
houses of comparable size in the rest of California -- just by putting the
most modern, thin solar panels on the roofs, by having sensible insulation,
by having energy-efficient lighting and by taking new windows that let in
more light and keep out more heat and cold.
These things are out there now, and I think when people know
there's actually something they can do, as well as what the consequences of
our not acting and not pushing Congress and other countries to act are,
then I think you'll see action.
DiCaprio: Well, my other question pertaining to that is, if there was
a profit incentive there, would that make us pay more attention?
Clinton: Yes, there should be more of a profit incentive.
I mean, right now, for example, if you take the most energy-efficient
lighting, it costs you more now, up front, but it lasts so much longer,
eventually you turn a profit. And this is true in many processes in all
the energy fields.
So what I have proposed to the Congress is that we do basically
two things. First of all, we give significant tax breaks to consumers to
buy energy-efficient products of all kinds; and that we also give tax
breaks for people to manufacture and develop them. And then, that we spend
more money on research, like the project we've had that the vice president
headed for new-generation vehicles, that we work with the auto companies
and the auto workers union to develop more energy-efficient vehicles and to
develop alternative forms of fuel, including biofuels, which could
dramatically change the whole future with regard to the greenhouse gases
we've put into the atmosphere.
So there's a lot more we can do and we ought to provide tax
incentives to the private sector to help us. But what I want to drive home
is that right now it is no longer necessary in order to grow our economy to
put more greenhouse gases, which cause global warming, into the atmosphere.
You don't have to burn more oil and coal to get richer now. Not in
America; not anywhere else.
DiCaprio: Now, in Kyoto, in the 1997 Global Conference on Climate
Change, it asked industrialized countries to drastically reduce their
greenhouse gas emissions. And when we tried to enforce such protocols in
developing countries, they came right back to us and said that the U.S. is
responsible for a quarter of the greenhouse gases that are going into the
atmosphere. How can we not practice what we preach?
Clinton: Well, first, I think we should practice what we
preach. And that's why I think it's so important that the Congress pass
the budget that I recommended that would dramatically increase our
investment in developing the kinds of technologies and alternative fuels
that would cut our greenhouse gas emissions.
But I also believe that we have a big stake in working with other
countries to convince them that they, too, can grow without increasing
greenhouse gas emissions. For example, no matter how much we cut emissions
in the United States, since this is a global problem, unless we also get
China and India and the countries that have the big rain forests to work
with us, we're going to be in real trouble.
So, for example, when I was in Bangladesh recently I announced a
debt-for-nature swap that we were going to help finance with them. I
signed a bill to do the same thing with the South American rain forest last
year. In India, we signed an agreement by which they committed that as
they continue to grow and need more power, that they'll have more and more
coming from natural and renewable sources in the future, so that we can
work together, because it is a global problem.
But we should lead the way. And since we have already so much
technology, and since, as I've just explained, just with these minor things
we cut the power bills here at the White House by $100,000, and we're going
to do it across the federal government -- if the federal government alone
will do what we did at the White House, we'll save $750 million a year, and
it will be the equivalent in terms of greenhouse gases and climate change
of taking 1.7 million cars off the road. We should be doing that.
But we should also work with other countries. I tell other
countries, the developing countries, I'm not asking you to give up your
growth; I'm not asking you to give jobs up. I'm asking you to pursue a
different pattern of energy use, which will give you more growth, more
jobs, and a healthier population over the long run. So I think this really
is a win-win issue here. This is not the way it used to be 30, 40 years
ago. You can grow an economy and use less energy if you do it right.
DiCaprio: Why do you think this issue is so constantly overlooked, and
why do you think people don't take it seriously enough? And for you, is it
as important as something like health care or education?
Clinton: Oh, yes, over the long run, it's one of the two
or three major issues facing the world over the next 30 years. I think
it's because it takes a long time for the climate to change in a way that
people feel it, and because it seems sort of abstract now. That's why I
think it's important that programs like this are aired, and people like you
-- not politicians or scientific experts, but citizens -- express their
And then it's important that citizens know that it ought to be an
issue -- it ought to be a voting issue at election time. And I don't say
this in a hateful way, it's just that people need to tell the politicians
and the candidates they care about this, they want action. But our
citizens need to follow the lead of a lot of our religious groups and other
civic groups in actually doing things themselves.
Right now, if the American people knew all the options that are
available to them and understood the economics, we could do much better.
And, of course, if my plan were to pass the Congress and we were to give
the tax breaks to consumers and manufacturers of these products and
technologies, we could do it even faster.
DiCaprio: Now, the major polluters are obviously the big industries, such as the oil companies, who are one of the most powerful lobbies in the
world. How do we convince them to change the way they've been doing
business for the last century?
Clinton: Well, for one thing, oil is a depleting resource,
and I think that oil companies and coal companies should be given
incentives to become energy companies and to promote energy efficiency so
that the oil they have will last longer and provide them a more steady
stream of income, and so that they can develop other ways of earning money.
They should become -- they should think of themselves as energy companies,
not oil companies.
And if you look at the record, starting with British Petroleum
and its leader, some members of the oil industry are beginning to come over
to support action on climate change. Some leaders of the auto industry are
beginning to come over and support action on climate change. They
understand that this is real and that when these gases get up in the
atmosphere, it takes at least 50 years for them to dissipate.
So we need to begin now a disciplined effort, which will be good
for our economy -- I will say again, this is good for the American economy
and good for public health. We need to do this, and if we did it from
today until the time you're my age, we'd be a much wealthier country, a
much healthier country, and with that kind of effort over that length of
time, we could head off this crisis.
DiCaprio: How do we get power companies to replace their coal plants
with cleaner technologies? And why don't we make it so expensive for power
companies to keep their old coal plants, that they have to invest in
Clinton: Well, I think you can do it in two or three ways.
I think, first of all, it's important to have very rigorous clean air
standards. And I think it's important also to provide them the tax
incentives they need to move as quickly as possible to alternative energy
A lot of the most enlightened utilities in America also see
conservation itself as an energy source. PG&E in California, for example,
but other utilities have understood that our inefficient patterns of using
electricity are pressing them to use more traditional energy and emit more
greenhouse gases and warm the climate.
So I think what we should do is to have a system where we finance
not only the conversion to alternative energy, but also looking at
conservation itself as a form of energy. When you save, you do the same
amount of work with less energy, and it's like creating more energy in a
totally clean way. And I think that we should be financing those things in
part with tax breaks from the American government. And I've pushed for
that, and I will continue to do so.
DiCaprio: Now, you've enacted tax credits for people who want to buy
electric and fuel-cell vehicles. What are we doing to encourage oil
companies to research alternative fuel technologies like fuel cells?
Clinton: Well, I want to give tax credits to them, too, to
make it easier for them to spend money on that kind of research. And we
are doing a lot of the basic research in the government. The work, for
example, we did with the auto companies on developing fuel cells, on
developing a dual-fuel electricity and gas engines --
DiCaprio: A hybrid vehicle.
Clinton: Hybrid vehicles -- the work that we've done to
try to help them develop cars that run on electricity, but where the
electricity regenerates -- the capacity regenerates so they don't have to
pull in every 80 miles and juice up the battery again, and a lot of the
research we're doing through the Agriculture Department in biofuels -- all
these things I think are very important. As we do more of that research,
the basic research, we then make it more cost-effective for the energy
companies and for the auto companies to take that basic research and
quickly convert it into commercially viable research to develop products.
So I think our research at the national level should increase as
well. I think it's very, very important that the federal government do
that. You know, to get out of the energy context, the Internet basically
began as a federally funded research project. So a lot of the things we
take for granted today in the private sector began with a heavy investment
of basic research from the national government. And I think we're still at
a point where the national government should be doing a lot of this basic
I'll just give you one example. If we could -- suppose we get
cars that will get 70 miles to the gallon, 80 miles to the gallon. And
then suppose they can run on clean biofuels that don't have any greenhouse
gas emissions, instead of gasoline. Now, what's the problem today? The
problem today is it takes about 7 gallons of gasoline to produce 8 gallons
of ethanol or other biofuel. So the researchers today are working on a
chemical breakthrough which would permit you to produce 8 gallons of
biofuel with 1 gallon of gasoline. If you did that, if you improve the
ratio to 8-to-1, and you had a car getting 70 miles to the gallon, it would be
like getting 500 miles to the gallon of gasoline in terms of greenhouse gas
Then the whole future of the world would be different. I mean,
this whole issue would be radically different. And then Americans, simply
by buying fuel that would be cost-effective, could whip this problem. And
we're on the verge of those kinds of breakthroughs, but we need the energy
companies to think of themselves as that -- not oil and coal, but energy;
we need the auto companies to keep supporting the work of combating global
warming, not pretending it doesn't exist, and many of them are today; and
we need more action from ordinary citizens, smaller businesses, and the
government to promote energy conservation and alternative energy sources.
But again I say, this is not a problem that requires big taxes,
big regulation and slow economic growth. It is no longer necessary -- in
the information economy, with the dramatic scientific breakthroughs already
made; we can grow economies faster by conserving energy rather than burning
it up. And that's what people don't yet believe. That's the real big
debate out there. If we can get people to really believe that we could
have a great future using less energy, not more -- traditional energy, I
mean -- then we'd have the battle half won.
And maybe that will come out of this program. Because there's
nothing so dangerous to society than being in the grip of a big idea that
isn't true anymore. And it is just no longer true that for America or
India or China or Latin America or any other place to grow wealthy, they
have to put more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by burning up more coal
and oil. That's just not true anymore. And so we have to show people that
that's not true and show them how they can make a difference, and then keep
making these products and technologies available so that it becomes easier
and easier and easier to do what is not only the right thing
environmentally, but the right thing for our long-term economic and public-health purposes.
DiCaprio: Many people have said in the past that the American dream
was to buy a car and live in the suburbs. But it has created massive
problems that have made us more reliant on our cars. Since it is so
difficult for us to convince people to use mass transportation, how can we promote hybrid vehicles and convince people to give up their SUVs? For
instance, if it only costs $575 a car to make them cleaner, why can't you
make it a law, like seatbelts?
Clinton: Well, I'm not sure that it only costs $575 to
make them cleaner in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. But let me say what I think ought to be done. I think -- first of all, I think if these
SUVs are going to be sustainable over the long run, they also are going to
have to become much more fuel efficient and be able to run on alternative
fuels. And I think the American people would pay a little more if they
would do that. And the auto companies for the first time have said now
that they want to bring in the SUVs and their other less-efficient vehicles
into this sort of new energy future that we're trying to build.
Secondly, I think that people will take mass transit more if it
works better. I've worked very hard to support more investments in mass
transit to make it more convenient and faster, including more high-speed
rail. And I still believe that as our urban areas become more and more
populated and traffic becomes more congested, quite apart from pollution in
the air, if we can have clean, efficient and fast mass transit, people will
begin to take it more and more and more -- because they can do other
things. They're not wasting so much time if they're riding the train.
So I'm hopeful that you will see that. I very much hope that we
will continue to develop mass transit alternatives, and I believe they will
become much more popular with people, especially in the highly populated
areas. But we can't stop the development of fuel efficiency because a lot
of our people live in rural areas and drive a long way to work, and that's
not going to change anytime soon.
DiCaprio: Now, Louisiana is the second largest consumer of fossil
fuels and the city most at risk for sea level rise. Can't something be
done like in Atlanta where the government withheld highway funds, making it the model city for environmental responsibility?
Clinton: Yes, we can. But under the law, we can only
withhold these highway funds if the air pollution of a given metropolitan
area is so high and they haven't done anything about it, anything else
about it. Then we can withhold the highway funds. They have to come up
with an alternative program, which usually involves mass transit or
car-pooling, or some other means to reduce air pollution, and in this case,
also to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
And I'm sorry to say I don't know exactly the answer to your
question, but it may be that for other reasons, New Orleans is in full
compliance with the federal laws on air pollution. I'll just have to look
But we've tried to do that in more than one other place, to use
the obligation of a city, a big metropolitan area, to have clean air to
promote the development of alternative energy technologies and alternative
travel patterns. And I do think that environmental standards can be used
In other words, instead of telling people we're going to shut you
down, or imposing big, heavy, complicated regulations, say, here's the
standard: If you want the money, meet the standard. And then, in Atlanta,
they figured out something to do that was very good for the environment and
they got their money.
DiCaprio: Now, I'm sure you've heard so many reports from scientists
and politicians and citizens. What do you think the best course for
American citizens is within the next 20 years as far as helping the
environment is concerned?
Clinton: Well, the biggest global problem by far on the
environment is global warming. The biggest problem in many developing
countries right now is safe water. We still have huge numbers of children
dying from diarrhea and other related diseases and problems because they
don't have safe water. And there are local air pollution problems that are
horrible in various places.
But internationally, the biggest problem is global warming. And
I think the most important thing we can do is every citizen must first
understand that he or she can do something about this and it won't bankrupt
them. They should have their homes, their cars, their businesses,
everything they do should be oriented toward energy efficiency and
alternative energy technologies.
And then they should make this one of the issues that has to be
discussed by public officials running for office at every level. This has
to become not just an issue that we talk about once a year on Earth Day,
but an issue that is debated along with health care and education and
national security and other issues at every election.
You know, I was fortunate when I asked Vice President Gore to
join me in 1992 that he had written a book on this, that he was interested
in it. He talked to me about it. And so we just, on our own initiative,
have done a lot of these things. But we could have had a whole
environmental agenda and not dealt with this really very much. And then we
had Kyoto, which we strongly supported, the Kyoto Protocol. But this needs
to become an issue for every public official. It needs to become a matter
of citizen debate.
So I think citizen action, and then citizens as voters turning it
into a political issue, in the very finest sense -- those are the things
that I think need to be done right now and for the next several years to
get America on the right track.
DiCaprio: Do you think we can eventually become a role model?
Clinton: Absolutely. We should become a role model
because, just as we've led the world in information technology with the
development of the Internet and digital technology of all kinds, we have
the technology here. And there's no excuse for not implementing it
comprehensively and quickly in every American community. And there's no
excuse for not making it available at an affordable price to every American
So if we take this on the way we did the Industrial Revolution,
the way we did the information technology revolution, there will be an
energy revolution in the 21st century that will save the planet and
actually increase health and wealth. That will be one -- I predict to you
that will be one of the great stories of the 21st century, that there was a
dramatic revolution in work caused by a change in the source of energy, in
the level of conservation, and in the availability of technologies that
just weren't there before.
DiCaprio: I hope so. Thank you very much for your time. I appreciate
Clinton: Thank you.